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The Dangers of Arrogant Ignorance


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Widespread historical ignorance is driving political polarization.

Jonah Goldberg

July 7, 2017

 

During President Trump’s speech in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday, he memorialized Pope John Paul II’s momentous 1979 visit to the city.

For many historians, the Polish-born pope’s mass in Victory Square, more than anything else, set in motion the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade later and the dissolution of the Soviet Union soon thereafter. The people in attendance knew exactly what President Trump meant when he spoke of how the millions of Poles attending that mass “did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We want God.’”

But I wasn’t in the audience; I was watching it on TV and following Twitter’s response to the speech. It was remarkable how many people immediately assumed Trump was talking crazy or just making stuff up (I am paraphrasing very charitably here).

I understand that response. Trump often does say crazy things. He does make stuff up — but usually not in prepared texts at big events.

It struck me how a lot of our political polarization is fueled by plain old ignorance.

Now, ignorance gets a bad rap. All ignorance means is that you lack knowledge about something. Ignorance isn’t necessarily something to be proud of, but it need not be a cause for embarrassment or shame, either. I’m pretty ignorant about botany, the history of the Republic of Chad, the entire Kardashian oeuvre and countless other things. None of this burdens my conscience much.

The problem is that ignorance, being the absence of knowledge, is a vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge,” Daniel Boorstin, one of my favorite historians, once noted.

 

 

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